Student Excellence Undergraduate studies

The cost of doing business

Using research and conversation to understand one Chicago community

Seventy-five years ago, Chicago employed some 670,000 people in manufacturing: blue collar jobs that paid a reasonable wage for a hard-day’s work. Today, it’s closer to 70,000. Chalk it up to globalization, financialization, the shareholder revolution, or just bad luck. Even longstanding holdouts like Nabisco—whose industrial bakery on Kedzie Avenue and 73rd Street in the neighborhood of Chicago Lawn once boasted 4,000 union jobs—have shed payroll. In 2016, the creators of the Oreo moved more of their production lines to Mexico, laying off 600 South Side employees in the process. Only 600 remained at the company.

A major in both economics and anthropology, senior Olivia LaRocco (’19) wanted to understand all of this: how Chicago’s economy was shifting, and what it meant for the laborers caught in the wake. To do so, she started plotting an ambitious, multiyear research assignment about work in a post-manufacturing environment. Eventually, she’d secure funding from the Carroll and Adelaide Johnson Fellowship to help her pull it off. “When Olivia knocked on my door—she had a project,” says Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and LaRocco’s advisor. “She knew exactly what she wanted to do.”

It started with a comprehensive literature review, a one-credit class in which LaRocco “would do five readings a week and would write up brief reports of what I found out about the history of manufacturing in Chicago, and some of the sociological studies that have been done on workers who experienced job loss.” (Her final bibliography—stuffed with books and statistics and encyclopedia entries—extends over two pages.) Then LaRocco connected with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers’ International Union, who represented Nabisco employees and whose Chicago staff introduced her to members the company had recently let go. Off and on over two years, LaRocco conducted lengthy field interviews with four of them, typically in South Side restaurants during off-hours (to limit the background noise, as much as possible). She asked general questions about their careers and their families before moving into the sensitive issues of their finances, emotional well-being, and self-worth. To fill in contextual gaps, LaRocco tutored at a nearby school and explored Chicago Lawn on foot, stopping inside diners and stores, jotting down observations in a notebook.

Over 73 percent of households in Chicago Lawn earn less $50,000 a year; it’s not an area of the city well positioned to absorb the turmoil of layoffs. Indeed, LaRocco wrote in her final paper, “many expressed anger, not with the layoffs themselves, but with the manner in which they were handled—with haste, distrust, and notable lack of empathy…When they were hired at Nabisco, [the workers] believed this would be the job that would stick.” Left scrambling, her subjects took whatever gigs they could find, often for lower pay and less comprehensive benefits. One worked part-time at a restaurant, another opened an online store. One couldn’t pay his child support initially, and had the electric company temporarily cut out his lights. These strains, LaRocco learned, tested their closest relationships. They felt guilty and depressed, yet none of them had the time or resources to seek counseling or therapy.

Still, LaRocco was surprised and moved by her conversations. She remembered “witnessing a lot of solidarity” in the areas around the factory; nobody she met had given up hope for a stable and fulfilling life.

“People who have been through unpleasant circumstances are often the most resilient, the ones who push through.”
—Olivia LaRocco, economics and anthropology major

Gomberg- Muñoz is a South Sider herself; she used to drive by the Nabisco plant as a kid, which always smelled of cookies. “One of the things that really impresses me about Olivia’s research is how well-rounded it is,” she says. “It’s informed by all kinds of economic analysis related to the rise of manufacturing and post-industrialization, and it’s got all of these global implications, thinking about shifting economies. But it’s also very localized and personal.”

After graduation, LaRocco will likely apply to public policy graduate programs. It’s a field that will allow her to continue “rethinking the way we do things and spend money and expand the economy.”

“The Nabisco plant is definitely not a one-note story,” LaRocco adds.